Replacing one tunnel vision for another helps no one

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with talk radio.  At best I love the debate that it can bring up but I hate how irritated it makes me as I sit there listening to stuff I consider to be BS.  I love the fact that ideas are being put out there, but invariably it’s put out in an overly reductionist way to specifically invoke that sort of response.  I long abandoned political talk radio because of it and instead picked up listening to fitness podcasts, among others.  Sadly I find myself going through the same emotions far too frequently when it comes to basic understanding about common sense diet and nutrition.

Like many aspects of our society we want something quick and simple to do to be healthy and lose weight.  The concept of health coming from eating a balanced diet full of real fruits and vegetables while getting some minimum level of exercise isn’t what people want to hear.  It’s better to hear that a pill will solve all your worries.  Short of that we want to know what simple buzzword worthy food trend will get us to a “healthy” diet in the shortest amount of time.  The low fat and low carb trends are the ones that have kept coming up in recent years and the population goes back and forth on that.  Watching cholesterol or BMI or weight is another.  Unfortunately you can’t just look at one metric or one thing and ignore the bigger picture.

I believe many well meaning people have been trying to get us off of this narrow vision of looking at just one number or one thing, but unfortunately more often than not they are just replacing one tunnel for another.  Listening to an interview with Gary Taubes today was yet another reminder of how well intentioned people are really just swapping the one out for the other and not actually changing people’s way of thinking.

Taubes is one of the low-carb people who preaches that “calories matter is a myth.”  Well, unless he’s managed to suspend the laws of thermodynamics I’d say that’s a rather bold claim to make.  What he really means to say is that looking solely at the calorie balance is short sighted.  That’s a totally legitimate statement.  You can’t say that 200 calories of Twinkies and 200 calories of a healthy salad are the same to your body.  One is nothing but highly processed sugar and fat packed into a very small package.  The other is a micronutrient dense meal with a lot of fiber, weight and bulk.  However even if you are eating a completely clean and healthy diet, if you eat too much food you will gain weight.  It’s a thermodynamic certainty.

What will his readers hear from his message though?  His message is get rid of carbs and you can eat whatever and however much you want.  I’m sure he’s advocating eating nice healthy foods, and hopefully just to satiety.  However when a person has done nothing but concentrate on “low fat” switching to “low carb” and also telling them to forget the total calories is going to end up being a failure path.  Thankfully it is harder to stay hungry eating good foods, but I’m sure there are people who can power through a pound of bacon a day without thinking about it.  That’s the better part or all the calories you are supposed to eat in a day, to say nothing for the fact that the food isn’t diverse and therefore they are once again stuck in a nutrient deficiency state.  Sure they may lose a few pounds of water weight as their sugar stores are depleted (since they are tied up with water too) but eventually that will rebound too as the calorie balance tips in the other direction.

The same is true with his “salt doesn’t matter” point of view either.  Again, certainly if you are eating a healthy diet of whole foods with good salt then you will have a hard time getting excess salt, but it’s not impossible.  If instead you are eating processed foods where you can have 200% of your daily allowance of salt in one serving, you most certainly can get into stratospheric salt conditions.  Does he think people with tunnel vision aren’t going to take this and his “don’t worry about calories” message and go anywhere but into a new tunnel of narrow visioned eating?

I take similar exception with the people like Jimmy Moore who say cholesterol doesn’t matter anymore either.  Yes, the concentration on just the total cholesterol number is overly reductionist, as most things in the health messages.  So hats off to them for saying that you need to look at far more than that.  However you can’t stop there, which is sadly where they often do on these talk shows and articles.  Even they will talk about things like making sure you have a good LDL to HDL ratios, getting a higher precision LDL test to measure particle size and to get other tests like fasting blood glucose, triglyceride levels and C-Reactive Protein.  All great and highly advocated to look at a broader sense of health.  However that’s not where their messages end in too many cases.  Instead it ends with “don’t worry about cholesterol anymore.”  Giving that sort of gun to the same person that will buy Twizzlers because they are “fat free” or canola oil because it is “low carb” is again just switching them from one overly reductionist message to another.

These people need to remember that if they aren’t talking about this in the context of looking at health from a broader and more holistic perspective then they are exacerbating the existing problem.  Some of them don’t mind ignoring basic physics, like Taubes, even when they go beyond the reductionist pitch, but they still are at least talking about how to eat healthier than a current highly processed food diet.  Unfortunately those messages are left to those who buy their books or listen to a rather in-depth podcast (at best).  Often on podcasts I can hear the head nodding of the hosts who would rather not confront the soundbite message and discuss the broader discussion, so their listeners too will be given that skewed message.  It’s just bad news.

While I applaud them for trying to help get us out of the tunnel vision that so many people in our society have on health and nutrition, I would ask them to consider refining their pitch and message so that they aren’t contributing to the problem in the same way that the well meaning but misguided “low fat” recipe did so many years ago.